Jennifer Johnston is June’s Irish Times Book Club author

Jennifer Johnston, who published her first novel The Captains and the Kings in 1972 when she was 42, is this month’s Irish Times Book Club author. While Grace’s visitors focus her attention on an uncertain future, Mimi must begin to set herself to rights with the betrayals and disappointments of the past. The Captains and the Kings won the Authors Club First Novel Award and Shadows on Our Skin was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977. Eileen Battersby, Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times, wrote of her in a 2010 profile, in which she described her as an heir to Elizabeth Bowen: “Johnston’s sophisticated, at times deceptively conversational, narratives have drawn on social class as it exists in a country caught between the contrasting Catholic and Protestant cultures … For Flora and her mother, life will never be the same again. Other major career success include How Many Miles to Babylon? in 1974, The Railway Station Man in 1985 (also made into a film starring Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland and John Lynch) and Fool’s Sanctuary in 1988. Johnston has won a number of awards, including the Whitbread Book Award for The Old Jest in 1979 (later made into a film as The Dawning, starring Anthony Hopkins) and a Lifetime Achievement from the Irish Book Awards in 2012. Admission is free and all are welcome to attend and meet the author. Over the next month, we shall be looking back over her career, with a particuclar focus on her latest work, Naming the Stars, a haunting tale of love, loss and memory, which was published by Tinder Press last year along with her earlier novel Two Moons. Two Moons is set in a house overlooking Dublin Bay, where Mimi and her daughter Grace are disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Grace’s daughter and her boyfriend. More than any other Irish writer, it was Johnston who took the Big House novel, with its final vestiges of fading privilege, out of the countryside and towards its inevitable, and logical, resting place – the more narrow, less romantic, and ultimately realist suburban comforts of Dalkey and Killiney.” Over the next four weeks we shall publish a series of articles looking back over Johnston’s career, culminating with a podcast on June 30th of an interview with the author by Eileen Battersby, which will be recorded at the irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square …

The inner lives of Dublin’s inner city: the art of building a community

On a bright clear day in late spring last year, I drove my battered blue Almera into Mountjoy Square in Dublin’s inner city, looking for somewhere to park. Last, light: church candles just right to light the dark; your own little gaff. “The Dublin Adult Learning Centre – I’m teaching a creative writing class there”. Life might have been tough but there was always an ingenious solution to most problems and always a neighbour to help out and supply what was wanting. I used to bring a nail with me in case the wheel came off. Children might be sent out with prams or boxcars to collect fuel from the fuel depot which they’d bring back and distribute amongst their neighbours. Inner-city Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s was still a place where people were in and out of each other’s houses, kids playing in the square whilst parents chatted on the steps and kept an eye on their offspring. They would scour the surrounding areas for materials to build “egaas” – little shanties of pallets, wood and anything else they could find. Women on the ground floor might cook toffee apples in their kitchens, or send their kids to get offcast sticks of rock from the Williams and Woods factory on Kings Inn Street. If not, it meant a trip to Ballybough for the turf; it was hard getting up the hill with the boxcar full. I might have equally mentioned Ancient Greek, for all the interest he showed. Quite a few of the group had grown up in the Corporation Buildings complex off Foley Street, built in 1905 and demolished in 1972. Most of the participants, men and women in their 50s and 60s in the main, had grown up within a square mile of Mountjoy Square, and as they trawled through their memories, what came across more than anything else was the profound sense of community they had experienced. The brief was to explore the past through the students’ personal histories; my writing prompts unleashed some extraordinary tales of ordinary life in Dublin’s inner city during the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, right up until the current day. He wandered back to the checkpoint as I gathered my composure and headed off to DALC for my morning class. First in the queue, knock at the door, first in, first served, get the docket quick, then back to the …

My fictional world, mapped on a napkin

Where could she go? Though I’m not sure I could have conceived it that way without the experience of living in a Gaeltacht community that places such a high value on the preservation of its distinctively local culture through the passing on of stories, place names and poems. But the underpinning challenge was to produce an accurate, unsentimental picture of contemporary Ireland, and to drill down into the realities of modern rural life. For an author, that’s gold dust. During one of her weekly trips in the peninsula’s mobile library van Hanna realises that “for millennia, written words had conveyed dreams, visions and aspirations across oceans and mountains, and that as she steered between puddles and potholes she was part of a process that stretched across distance and time, linking handwritten texts from Egypt and Mesopotamia with the plastic-covered novels, CDs, and celebrity cookbooks lined up in the back of her van.” It’s a turning point in her search for independence, when she realises that her fear of small-town gossip and her sense of failure have twisted the values and aspirations that brought excitement to her youth. So making a map was the logical starting point. Summer at the Garden Café by Felicity Hayes-McCoy is published by Hachette Ireland, £13.99 My starting point was a map. Those links, forged and maintained from time immemorial through storytelling, voyaging and books, are now further supported by telecoms and social media. Starting the series by creating Finfarran itself was a matter of instinct: when you’ve written for television you’re constantly aware of the narrative value of the physical, and of the importance of consistency in an episodic series. Like me, Hanna belongs to a generation that, for lack of career opportunities, went abroad to find a future; and the kids with whom Jazz went to school still live with the idea of emigration as a threat, not a choice. And my love of the particular colours and patterns of Irish speech comes both from a lifetime of listening in two languages, and a sense of the inherent rhythmic differences between urban and rural life. So I sketched the detail of the peninsula on the back of a napkin that day in the museum cafe, and the act of creating their setting informed both characters and plot. My grandmother’s oral, Irish-language tradition, married to a love of Ireland’s English-language, literary tradition, has shaped me as …

The Book of Kells is not the only rare Irish manuscript in town

Legend has it that St Nessan threw the holy book at a devil and the force of the blow threw the hapless devil from Ireland’s Eye against the mainland cliff face, denting the rock and creating a feature still known as Puck’s Rock. Irish gloss in ‘Codex Usserianus Primus’ Opening of the Gospel of St Luke in the ‘Book of Dimma’ Raman spectroscopy was conducted on the ‘Book of Mulling’ Relatively few examples early Christian gospel books survive, and Trinity College library is in the fortunate position of possessing seven. They also have a more personal character. Annotations in early Irish place it in Ireland quite far back – “To see the actual handwriting on the page brings you right back in time,” Moss remarks – but its exact whereabouts are unknown until it found its way to Trinity in the 17th century. There is a delight in surface effects, playing on opacity and translucency.” Illumination was a serious business. Bioletti points point to the way previous generations of scholars did not have the technology now available and may have made assumptions on the basis of inadequate evidence. “It’s opening up Irish art of this period to the world. Shrine made to hold the ‘Book of Dimma’ in the 12th century All is not as it seems with the Book of Dimma. Dimma and Mulling are immediately pre-Kells. The ninth-century parchment manuscript is associated with St Nessan’s monastery on Ireland’s Eye, but is little known even in Howth. Understandably, of the four it was in the poorest condition. All four have been comprehensively repaired, studied, analysed and – vitally – digitised. “There are already publications coming out of it,” Moss says. The Book of Mulling comes via the Kavanagh family in Co Carlow. The reader should be struck by the transcendent nature of the gospel message, so illuminations should have a wow factor. One of the very earliest surviving Irish manuscripts, the fragmentary Codex Usserianus Primus could date back as far at the fifth century and was probably produced somewhere on mainland Europe. Mulling features portraits of the four evangelists, plus illuminated initial caps. Whereas the impeccable majuscule text of Kells has a formal, print-like quality, Mulling and Dimma have a more handwritten feeling. A miraculous context was added with the story of how, when Dimma was asked to produce the gospels in a day, the sun shone without respite …

My Name is Leon wins Irish Novel of the Year Award

The two other shortlisted collections were Parvit of Agelast by Maighread Medbh and The Seasons of Cullen Church by Bernard O’Donoghue. The adjudicators were Deryn Rees Jones and Lavinia Greenlaw. The judges said: “This is a heartfelt, far-sighted and humane book, shot through with understated grief, necessary humour and a masterly point of view, rendering detail with nuance and accuracy. Debut novelist Kit  de Waal has won the €15,000 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2017 with My Name is Leon. Donoghue’s abiding theme across her oeuvre, the confinement of children, finds original expression here, and the world of rural Ireland in the 1850s is brought thrillingly to life in language that doesn’t put a foot wrong. The festival continues until Sunday, June 4th and will play host to Alan Cumming, Helen Lederer, Richard Ford, Sinead Crowley, Lisa McInerney, Jess Kidd, Graham Norton, Liz Nugent, Arja Kajermo, Lisa Harding and Alan McMonagle amon gothers. The narrative is emotional without being sentimental and often genuinely moving. This is a heartfelt, far-sighted and humane book, shot through with understated grief, necessary humour and a masterly point of view, rendering detail with nuance and accuracy. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue A generous, beautifully written and impeccably researched historical novel on anorexia and superstition set after the Great Famine, The Wonder resonates with the always-present urgency of the great matter of faith versus reason. Slowly all necessities – light, heat, water, companionship, presence – are withdrawn, all rendered in a prose filled with the author’s poetic skill. In a beautiful metaphor for the withering of capitalism’s dreams, we watch as hope and promises turn to degradation and strangeness. The John B Keane Lifetime Achievement Award, in association with Mercier Press, was presented in person to poet Brendan Kennelly, who received one of the loudest applause of the evening, in recognition of his outstanding contribution not only to literature but to Writers’ Week. He was one of the founding members in 1970. In its startling opening, a young girl appears on a stranger’s doorstep, wild and with words marked on her skin. It will also feature 12 creative writing workshops and the National Children’s Festival featuring Nick Sharatt, Holly Webb, Cathy Cassidy and Sarah Webb. Sometimes this book seems to be a song, at other times a prose poem, and at all times a unique achievement. Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty Hegarty’s novel …

Fresh masterpieces join The Book of Kells on display in Trinity

That is the general story: “More local materials used with expertise than exotic imports.” Several of those materials were toxic, such as red lead and the bright yellow derived from an arsenic sulphide that could pass for gold. Ideas can be exchanged. As Bioletti puts it: “It’s not as slick as Kells, but there is an exquisite line work and not much embellishment. Dimma and Mulling are immediately pre-Kells. It’s an eighth-century pocket-gospel long associated with the monastery of Saint Mullins and was in the possession of the Kavanagh family for centuries until they passed it on to Trinity for safe keeping. Each comes from a different part of Ireland and has its own distinctive history. The reader should be struck by the transcendent nature of the gospel message, so illuminations should have a wow factor. With possession comes responsibility and, thanks to the project grant, Bioletti, Moss and their team have dealt with four of them, all previously accessible to scholars only in restricted circumstances. They also have a more personal character. It means you can begin to have conversations, to join the dots. Bioletti points point to the way previous generations of scholars did not have the technology now available and may have made assumptions on the basis of inadequate evidence. Extraordinary and unrivalled though it is, the Book of Kells is only part of the story, and that story has just been significantly enlarged thanks to a major conservation programme completed over the past three years. Plant dyes and earth colours were widely used. Both it and the Book of Dimma, another eight-century manuscript of the four Gospels, owe their survival to the fact that they were regarded as relics and carefully preserved in metalwork shrines. In fact, Bioletti relates, analysis provided a source much closer to home: “They used an indigo blue mixed with gypsum, aiming for a lapis-like effect.” Which, ingeniously, they achieved. For the O’Carroll and Kavanagh families, possession of the books reinforced not just their social status but their territorial claims as well. Irish gloss in ‘Codex Usserianus Primus’ Opening of the Gospel of St Luke in the ‘Book of Dimma’ Raman spectroscopy was conducted on the ‘Book of Mulling’ Relatively few examples early Christian gospel books survive, and Trinity College library is in the fortunate position of possessing seven. All four have been comprehensively repaired, studied, analysed and – vitally – digitised. …

Dua Lipa: ‘When you’re honest when you write, people get that’

I worked with Miguel and he has been doing it for so long that it’s second nature for him and he made me feel really comfortable and confident so there was no tension or nervousness or any of that. “I moved back to London because I wanted to do music and that was where I felt I had to be. I’d call my mum when I’d wake up in the morning and when I’d get to school and when I left and all through the day so they knew I was OK. I want them to have a good time but I also want them to hear the lyrics and be able to relate to what I’m talking about. At first, I listened to them because the songs were really fun and they were great to sing along to. “I want people to feel something when they listen to my music. But the more I listened, the more meaning I heard in the songs and the more important they became to me.” The nature of the modern pop game means Lipa spent a lot of time walking into studios for songwriting sessions with strangers. “I listened to them over and over again when I was growing up. That’s important to her and, she believes, her audience. How hard is it to be honest about your emotions in those situations? “It was really a trust thing,” Lipa says when you ask about her parents’ reaction to this move. I could say to them ‘hey, I know I don’t have any songs of my own, but here’s my voice and I can work with you on songs’. Four years later, Lipa headed back to her birthplace on her own. She didn’t have family in London so the 15-year-old stayed with a friend, went to school during the week and attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School at the weekend. She wanted a career in music so off she went. You go into a room with a bunch of people you haven’t met before and start talking about your personal experiences. When you do that, it makes the process a lot easier. There’s a story in Dua Lipa’s back pages that tells you a lot about determination. That’s not to say that my parents weren’t worried – I know they were – but I made sure to tell them everything to ensure they were …